Please pray with me. Gracious God, grant us the grace to love what you command and to desire what you promise. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I invite you to pull up a chair to the table to join one of the most extraordinary dinner parties in all of the Bible. As you pull up your chair, as a guest at this incredible dinner, I invite you to open wide the throttle of your imagination. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you feel and touch in this story? In Ignatian spirituality, we’re invited to use all of our senses to enter into a story. Through our imagination, God can show us new insights and bring forth memories, things that perhaps, even though this Scripture is so familiar, you hadn’t noticed before.
In order to fully appreciate this story, we have to back up a bit in the Gospel of John, back to the 11th chapter. We know from Scripture that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus—the siblings—are very close friends of Jesus. They’ve dined together before; he’s been their teacher; and in many ways they are his disciples, even though they’re not following him around like the twelve. They’re extremely close and they love one another. In the 11th Chapter of John, we learn that Lazarus is gravely ill, and word is sent to Jesus, but he doesn’t come to Bethany until Lazarus has been dead four days. Now, even that detail is significant because in those days, many believed that the soul would stay near the body for three days. So, by the fourth day, everyone would’ve acknowledged, Lazarus was dead. No question about it.
When Jesus is on the outskirts of Bethany, Martha gets word, and she runs to meet him. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” In their exchange she acknowledges her belief that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the very Son of God. Then she runs back to the house and tells Mary, “The Teacher is here and he is calling for you.” Mary rushes out to meet Jesus with a whole group of mourners who have gathered with them as they mourn the loss of their brother Lazarus. She, too, says to Jesus, after she kneels at his feet, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The friends cry. Mary weeps. Jesus weeps. They were close. Jesus had lost a beloved friend and disciple, too.
Then they make their way to the tomb and Jesus commands that they roll the stone away. Martha’s not so sure about that and says, “Lord, at four days, there is a stench of death.” Jesus presses on. You know the story: the Son of God, Jesus, their close friend, calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, from death into life. And everyone saw it. As the Scripture tells us, many people came to believe. I guess! But some went back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ religious opponents what had happened. They were terrified. From that moment forward they schemed for when Jesus would come into Jerusalem for the Passover. They plotted his arrest and death because, you see, he was a threat to the status quo. For if there was dissension, they were worried that the Roman authorities and oppressors would destroy the Temple and the nation. They had every cause to be worried.
This is where we pick up the story this morning. We’re six days away from the Passover and Mary and Martha and Lazarus invite their dear friend Jesus to dinner. What do you do for someone who has just raised your brother from death into life? What do you do for someone who has very obviously put his own life at risk to save another? One can imagine, as you’re sitting at the table, that Martha has prepared the most extraordinary feast that she’s capable of producing and serving—offering the very best. One can imagine the smell of the food in the room and the liberal pouring of the libations for such a celebratory event.
Yet, even in the midst of this celebration, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus know that Jesus had just basically written his own death sentence by coming to Bethany and raising Lazarus from the dead. So, even in the midst of this celebration, there’s the undercurrent of death and what lay ahead of them. During this beautiful dinner, Mary does a whole series of extraordinary things. She literally lets her hair down, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and breaks open exquisite perfume that’s so expensive that one can only imagine that it was probably her most precious possession. Then she anoints Jesus’ callused, sore, dusty, dirty feet. If that’s not enough, she then wipes them with her hair. Now you need to realize that in those days, no woman let her hair down outside of her own family. No one lavishly and lovingly touched a man that she wasn’t related or married to—much less anoint with precious perfume. Then, picture this: I don’t care how long her hair was, her head had to be right there to wipe Jesus’ feet. And the room is filled with the embodiment of this sweet smell of the possibility of new life.
You see, what’s happening in the story is the very embodiment of self-sacrificial love: loving God and loving one another. Jesus has, in the story, literally embodied what he will tell the disciples at the Last Supper: that there is no greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. He’s just done that, and Mary and Martha and Lazarus know, or at least assume, that this will be their last supper with their beloved Jesus. I can imagine you could have heard a pin drop when Mary, without a word, showed what self-sacrifice and love looks like. However, like any dinner party, somebody doesn’t read the moment in the room. In this case, it’s Judas Iscariot. It’s just too much. So, he chastises Mary: why didn’t she sell that perfume which would’ve provided food for a poor family for a year? The narrator helpfully gives us a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Judas Iscariot wasn’t concerned about the poor! It just meant less funds in the common purse from which he could steal! We know that he is the one who will betray Jesus. Jesus pushes back and says, “Leave her alone.” He honors her self-sacrifice and gift and tells everyone that she’s anointing him for burial.
When we look over the course of the last two years that we’ve been through, we have seen and experienced so much together: the deaths from COVID-19, racial injustice and social injustice. So much. Yet even in the midst of that darkness, we have seen people step up and risk their own lives for others, such as the healthcare workers and frontline workers who risk their own lives to save others and are still doing so today. Remember, there are still 600 people dying every day of COVID and people risk their own lives in the midst of that. We’ve seen people who have worked tirelessly to write the wrongs of social injustice. And how can we not be moved by the self-sacrificial love of the people in Eastern Europe who are welcoming the stranger, opening their homes, opening their hospitals, opening their schools, opening everything—their hearts—to welcome over four million Ukrainian refugees? Love and light in the midst of darkness.
My friends, we’re two weeks from Easter and on this Lenten journey, we’ve been called to a time of self-reflection to bring to the surface those areas of our life or aspects of our life that probably need to die—any residual holding onto grudges or bitterness or ranker or unforgiveness, even for ourselves—in order to fully receive that which God intended from the very beginning. Between now and Easter, I pray that we will all be able to lay at the Cross that which needs to die in our lives. So that, like Jesus, on the other side of the Cross, we too can experience the resurrection of new life, new light, love for God and love for one another that can change the world.
Anything is possible for those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purpose. Mary showed us the way. Jesus showed us the way. The beloved community is not just an idea. It’s what we’re called to and with the love of the resurrected Christ, together, we can help make it happen in our day, in our time.
As we look to Easter and the joy of resurrection, be bold. Open yourselves up to the love of Christ that is available to you and to me: to heal us, to restore us, to make us whole and hopeful. Let it be so for you and for me. Amen.